Thursday, April 16, 2009

Castles on the Delaware River

It's been some time since I last visited here, and I don't know why. I guess there's always that point where the ears put up some resistance and the listening doesn't go so fast. It seems a bit early for that to happen though. I'm three books behind, so I hope I can catch up today. First up, the somewhat strange No Castles Here by A.C.E. Bauer (do you suppose she's goes by Ace?)

This is the story of Augie, a sixth grader living with his single mom in a blighted section of Camden, New Jersey. Augie is terrorized by a gang of more sophisticated boys who steal his lunch (or his lunch money), and he's developed a set of coping mechanisms to help him. One of these is reading a collection of fairy tales that he found in a mysterious bookstore in Philadelphia. Starting out with the Perrault tale of Donkeyskin, the tales follow the witchlike descendants of Donkeyskin up until the present day. There are also two adults making a different in Augie's life, his Big Brother, Walter Jones, and his music teacher, Mr. Franklin. Mr. Franklin encourages Augie to join his choir, and when Augie's school is threatened with closure, Augie organizes a concert and rally to keep the school open.

I think that this book wants me to understand that Augie realizes that fairy tale endings come in all ways, but I felt confused by its mixture of realism and fantasy. The bookseller seems to be the last descendant of Donkeyskin, and has (good) witchlike qualities herself, yet Augie's world is a harsh one, with no easy resolutions. He's an extremely likeable character -- any reader would be longing for him to succeed -- his conflicts (and their resolution) seemed very real to me. I thought the author did a great job of surrounding him with caring adults while never letting you forget that it was Augie who solved his own problems. It's a powerful story for young readers.

The audiobook is narrated by John H. Mayer, who gave an enthusiastic and compelling reading, providing a vivid picture of Augie's emotions. He did a particularly fine job in portraying the two adult males in Augie's life -- these men felt like real people. But he's an old guy, with a gravelly voice, and I don't think he gave a very youthful feel to this story. When schoolchildren are conversing in the novel; well, they don't sound very childlike.

Augie is a white boy living in predominantly African American Camden. This presented two problems for me: One, why does it have to be the white boy who saves the school, and thus gives the community a rallying point? Two, when Mayer portrayed the many African American characters in the novel, he sounded like an old white guy trying to sound black. It was a bit cringeworthy to be honest.

This book doesn't circulate very much at my library -- our 14 copies have gone out just 73 times in the 18 months we've owned it. I think it needs some handselling, since it's bound to disappoint a fantasy fan who opens it and soon might think (with reason) that's she's reading a story about a boy who will soon learn he has special powers. The print version has a somewhat bizarre cover, which doesn't help (the book cover is the trippy, kind of Salvador Dali castle). Give this to a reader who likes gentle stories, where bad things are appropriately described, but good triumphs.

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